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Stephanie Brown Trafton: A in-depth interview with the Olympic discus champion

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05/01/2009 - 22:37

by Mark Winitz

Stephanie Brown Trafton is gradually getting used to the idea that she’s an Olympic champion.

A month after winning her Olympic Gold medal in Beijing, she walked into a packed Pacific Association USA Track & Field board meeting while new USATF CEO Doug Logan was outlining his plans to revitalize the challenged federation. The meeting abruptly stopped, and Brown Trafton received a rousing ovation.

The suddenly renowned U.S. discus thrower found refuge against the nearest wall, looking as if she wanted to hide. It wasn’t long, however, before Brown Trafton was outlining to the group her most recent grant application for funding to support U.S. athletes—this one for 2009 World Championships team members.

Once you get to know Stephanie Brown Trafton, her occasional polar switches between wallflowerism and activism don’t seem so off the wall.

The 6-4, 225-pound athlete has struggled with visibility for a low-visibility track and field event—and, a personally ingrained tendency toward invisibility—for much of her life.

“As a six-foot seventh grader, I was clumsy and really hadn’t grown into my body,” Brown Trafton said. “In terms of socialization, I had some good friends, but I was like a loner. It was hard for me to come out of my shell and deal with self-esteem issues.”

Stephanie Brown, however, found a somewhat comfortable outlet in sports, where her size was frequently an advantage, and success boosted her self-confidence. A decade and a half later, adjusting to luminary status on a stage as large as the Olympic Games is just another step in the maturing process of 29-year-old Brown Trafton.

Stephanie Brown grew up in Oceano, a beach town with miles of sand dunes on California’s central coast. Her mother, Philippa, died when Stephanie was four, Her father, Steve Brown, a cabinet maker, worked hard to carry out Philippa’s wish that her two children attend college, perhaps on scholarships. He also encouraged both Stephanie and her brother to participate in a variety of sports and cultural activities. As a youngster, she participated in soccer, swimming and volleyball, and played in the youth basketball league. Her first experiences in track were in junior high school, in the high jump and hurdles.

At Arroyo Grande High School, she was a three-sport athlete in her freshman and sophomore years before dropping volleyball to focus on basketball and track—sports where she excelled. She was the California state high school champion in the shot put as a sophomore in 1996, was the runnerup the following year; and in 1998 she added California state prep shot put and discus titles. As a track and field scholarship athlete at California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo) from 1999 to 2003, Brown earned fourth-place finishes outdoors at the 2002 (discus) and 2003 (shot put) NCAA Division I Championships. She also played basketball for Cal Poly, but an ACL injury in her sophomore year put the lid on her hoops career.

In her first post-collegiate season outdoors, Brown placed second at the ’04 Olympic Trials with a 61.90m/201-3 then-PR. This secured her an Olympic “A” standard and a spot on the team, but in Athens she failed to advance to the final.

In 2008, the track world saw a transformed athlete. In May, she set a new PR of 66.17m/217-1 at the Hartnell Throwers Meet in Salinas, CA, a world-leading mark for six weeks. Two weeks before the U.S. Trials, Brown Trafton defeated a talented field at the Prefontaine Classic, indicating she was rounding into peak form. She returned to Eugene and placed 3rd at the Trials (62.65m/205-6) behind Aretha Thurmond and Suzy Powell-Roos.

Then, in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, under less-than-ideal still air and humid conditions, Brown Trafton’s strong first throw of 64.74m/212-5 held up to earn her the first U.S. Gold medal in the women’s discus since Lillian Copeland in 1932.

Today, Brown Trafton and her husband, Jerry Trafton, who were married in 2005, live in Galt, Calif., midway between Sacramento and Stockton. Off the track, she works a personally satisfying part-time job in project management and engineering support at Sycamore Environmental Consultants Inc. in Sacramento, and chairs Pacific Association/USATF’s Elite Athletes Committee while serving on several national USATF committees.Brown-Tafton_Stephanie.jpg

American Track & Field’s Mark Winitz interviewed Brown Trafton in late September, shortly after the close of her outdoor campaign.

American Track & Field: Track and field fans all over the world now know you’re pretty good throwing the discus, but few know you also played basketball.

Brown Trafton: Many colleges wanted to recruit me for track and field, but only a few contacted me for basketball. That’s pretty much what I wanted to do—to play basketball in college. Cal Poly recruited me for both basketball and track and field.

But I never learned how to jump. It was never something that really came naturally to me. Basically, I stood underneath the basketball hoop and caught the ball and put it in. So, my athleticism in that respect was lacking. After my ACL tear in my sophomore year, I decided not to continue with basketball and I focused exclusively on track and field.

ATF: What was it like growing up as a tall youngster—physically, socially, emotionally, or otherwise?

SBT: I was clumsy, but still I was a fairly decent athlete. It wasn’t so bad that I had to quit playing. In high school, the draw is to be part of the crowd. You really don’t want to stand out. You have to wear the right clothes and have the right friends. I was never very successful at making the right friends. I never had the right clothes either, because we were poor growing up. When I was a freshman in high school there were times when I could put on a mask of confidence and use my natural abilities to charm my way into certain situations and overcome my insecurities. It wasn’t until I was a senior that I could let go of my fears of exposing my insecurities to the world and be proud of who I was.

ATF: How about the challenges of being a tall adult?

SBT: Once again, not being able to go anywhere without being noticed. I’m still learning to embrace that. Even now, I’m becoming more bold and coming out of my shell. Did you see my cartwheel on the Oprah Winfrey show?

ATF: What coaches or other people were most important to you as you developed in athletics?

SBT: Every single coach I had growing up was influential in my progression to a world-class athlete. In junior high, my basketball coach, Coach Enyart, knew how to motivate people in a positive manner without negativity. You need that in junior high school. I was fortunate to have a single track coach (throws) while at Arroyo Grande High School, Robert Budke, who was very instrumental in my success.

When I was four years old, Mary Lou Retton (1984 Olympic gymnastics multiple medalist) really started my dream of being an Olympic Games Gold medalist. I watched her on TV and wanted to be a gymnast. I wanted to wear the USA outfit and compete for my country. Of course, many of the track and field kids at my high school wanted to be the next Suzy Powell (3-time U.S. Olympian and U.S. record-holder in the discus) because she was successful—a Junior Olympian and so forth—when she was so young. In high school, I wanted to be like Suzy.

ATF: How about your college coaches at Cal Poly?

SBT:[Cal Poly throwing coach] Pete Corkery was very good for me at that point because he was mellow just like me and taught us how to be internally motivated, rather than [relying on] external motivation. He taught us how to be good athletes, students and good people. He was concerned with rounded individuals. The same with my basketball coach, Faith Mimnaugh. She was more concerned with building all-around balanced citizens rather than just stellar athletes.

ATF: Where do you do most of your training now? Whom do you train with?

SBT: I do most of my throwing practice at Sacramento City College. I train with the college athletes there occasionally. There’s a dedicated field for discus throwing, separate from the track. Sac City (College) coaches Lisa Bauduin and Robert Dewar help me out.

I have an entourage of people— coaches, trainers and physical therapists—that I work with. I have several people who are helping me out with technique. Mac Wilkins (1984 Olympic discus champion) is one of my advisors. Karin Smith (5-time Olympian, javelin throw) advises me on mental aspects and preparation. I have a massage therapist.

On a weekly basis, I see Tony Mikla (DPT) at Results Physical Therapy and Training Center in Sacramento. He’s my physical therapist. He helps me improve my balance agility, speed and he’s helped me to gain incredible core strength. He was able to help me implement the technical changes in my event that made me a world class thrower.

ATF: Can you describe these technical changes?

SBT: I needed to have more control of my speed in the ring. I see a lot of throwers try to [substitute] good technique with speed. Faster speed might seem to translate to further distance, but at some point you max out that compromise. Since I have such long arms and legs, speed is hard for me to do. At the same time, I don’t need a lot of speed to throw far. I just need to use my levers properly, and have a lot more patience with my rotation in the ring.

I implemented a static start this year (instead of using a windup), which has really helped me control my speed. Plus, I have much more body strength and flexibility in my core, which allowed me to alter the torque ratio between my hips and my shoulders during my spin. If you can get your hips in front of your shoulders during the rotation, that translates to more pull on the discus which translates to farther throws.

ATF: Do you have a principal coach?

SBT: It’s really a team effort. There’s not one specific person. Everyone has an important role. There are so many athletes who have nobody—so I’m really blessed with a solid team. At this point, I have to be self-directed. I have a part-time job that I really enjoy and where I have flexibility with my hours. So, I set my own schedule and my own practice time. Everything is self-directed. It’s really about what works for me, which is what every athlete should be concerned about. I’m an incredibly independent person, and I really don’t like being on a specific time schedule. I’m really lucky that my college coaches taught me to be self-directed, and have the internal motivation to set my schedule and get the work done—on and off the track.

ATF: What does a typical training day and week look like for you?

SBT: I go to work (at Sycamore Environmental) in the morning. In season, I work for about three hours, sometimes more. In the off season, I work more. Then I go to a training session, which might be throwing, weight lifting, or working out with my physical trainer, or massage. Training is a three to four hour block of my day. Then, I go back to work around 4 p.m. and work until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. I like it because the way I set my training is autonomous and my job is also completely autonomous.

I lift weights four times a week. I do supplemental training such as agility, balance, flexibility, and core strength training about four days a week. This training might be on the same day or on different days as my lifting. I throw about three times a week. Typically, my throwing volume is heavier in the pre- and early season and lighter towards the end when I’m peaking. I have about 12 discs that I carry around and throw in training. (That’s about the most I can carry in my reusable shopping bags.)

ATF: Why so many platters?

SBT:Because I’m naturally lazy. It’s fewer times I have to walk out and retrieve them. Just walking around takes a lot of energy because I’m so tall. My natural speed is basically sitting on the couch. I think I’m good at what I do because I focus my energy on things that are important, on specific tasks.

ATF: Stephanie, you made some really dramatic breakthroughs this year. Prior to 2008, your PB was 61.90m/203-1, set in 2004.

SBT: And, that was only one time. I didn’t hit that again until 2007 in Hawaii with the hurricane winds.

ATF: This year, you improved to 66.17m/217-1 (wind aided). You were leading on the world performance list for six weeks. And, of course, Olympic Gold...

SBT: Yes, in 2004 I had a 9-foot PR to make the Olympic team. That’s not unheard of for me because I’ve always been a fierce competitor when it comes to the big meets. And, usually, my first throw is the best. So, if these girls were doing their homework at the (Beijing) Olympics, they would have known my first throw would have been my best.

2005 was a big transition year for me. I moved from the San Luis Obispo area to Sacramento. I was married. I had an injury. I fouled three times at the national championships in qualifying. But USATF continued to fund me through their elite athlete development grant program. That paid off, bigtime. Nike signed me just before this year’s Olympic Trials.

ATF: So, until then, USATF assisted you and, of course, you worked.

SBT: Yes, USATF’s support was a large part of my financial assistance. I like to write technical documents on my job, and that translates well into grant applications (for personal athlete support). I’m an expert at it. Since 2003 I’ve been writing grant applications and receiving donations from local companies and non-profit organizations. So, the bulk of my athletics budget came from these generous organizations and USATF.

ATF: So, what happened after 2005 that got you to the Olympic podium today?

SBT: Well, in 2006 I had another injury, a stress fracture. It was another year that I just had to push through and figure out if I was motivated to keep doing this. Before, my goal was just to make the Olympic team. I achieved it in 2004. I finally decided to keep going because I was good at track and field and so many people kept telling me that I could be so much better. Plus, I didn’t want to work full time.

In 2007, I started training and physical therapy with Tony Mikla at Results Physical Therapy. I reevaluated my goals. And, in 2007, I had my best year on record to that point in terms of consistent distances. I threw 201 in Hawaii, made the Olympic “A” standard, and was ranked #3 in the U.S. But I wasn’t motivated for my meets. I didn’t have any energy. I flopped at the national championships, but still got fifth place and made the U.S. NACAC (North America, Central America and Caribbean) Championship team.

I knew I could be so much better.

Between the 2007 and 2008 seasons, I didn’t take my usual two months off. I took two weeks and then started doing my
supplemental training—core strength and flexibility, balancing, etc. That’s when I transformed my body, which allowed me to implement the technical changes. My 2008 season completely reflected that. Every meet this year I was throwing farther and farther. 2008 was the first year that I knew exactly what it felt like to throw far—the arm position, the torque and amount of tension that your body needs. And, I could replicate that. Not necessarily the technique, because that was hit or miss, but the feeling of getting into the correct position.

ATF: What do you think about in competition? How do you warm up both physically and mentally?

SBT: I focus on keeping my energy levels up, which basically means sitting down. When it’s close to my turn to throw, about three people back, I get up and start moving around. I have a specific routine that Tony (Mikla) helped me come up with to get my body going again in terms of energy. It’s (composed of) specific movements. It doesn’t matter what the movements are. What matters that it’s part of your routine, and that it gets your mind and your body ready at the same time.

After getting up, I do a few hops and skips. Then, I do a couple of hip turns using a bungie cord. After the Olympic Trials, I really started paying more attention to my approach into the ring—to take my mind off of worrying about technique and put it on auto pilot. Again, it’s a specific set of movements to accomplish that.

ATF: I’ve noticed that generally you seem very relaxed and focused in competition. Where does that come from?

SBT: I’m a very mellow person, which is one of my advantages in competition. It takes a lot for me to get really stressed out about anything. It’s a natural trait. I’m really even keel. I don’t get overly exited, and I don’t get depressed about many things. It sounds good, but it’s not [a] very interesting [person] to be around. The Olympic Trials final was the first time all season that I was nervous. I had the feeling that this is big time; this is the meet.

I’m a person of faith and sometimes I do a lot of praying and micro meditation in competition. I pray for peace of mind, that’s all. I prayed in Beijing when I needed some crucial throws to make the final.

ATF: Do you usually communicate with your coaches or advisors during competition?

SBT: Basically, my team has about ten specific cues, which I also have written down in my notebook (for reference at competitions). I use three or four of them a lot as reminders to focus on specific problem areas that I have. They’re composed of one or two words, or a short phrase. I use them all year long. For example, “walk the dog” is one of my cues. It reminds me to run away from the discus, keep my arms level, a combination of things. I might think about a specific cue prior to the throw. During the throw, you’re not supposed to think about anything. Cues can also be communicated to me during the competition by my team (coaches, advisors, trainers, etc.), either written or verbally as reminders.

ATF: Did you have specific expectations going into Beijing?

SBT: Actually, following last season I just wanted to make the Olympic team again. Other people’s expectations were higher. People would ask me, “Are you going for a medal?” Of course, I’d say yes. Who wouldn’t want to go for a medal? I had a distance goal of 220, but I didn’t really believe I could win an Olympic medal.

When I finally admitted that to myself, I reevaluated. I asked myself why I’m working so hard (in the sport), taking so much time off work, and making my family sacrifice if I really didn’t think I could (win a medal). I did a lot of praying about it. I finally had a revelation that if God wants me to win a medal He can make it happen. And, for the first time I realized that it was a possible task. Suddenly, I had a focused goal and a belief that I could do it. The hard work and effort was up to me.

At the Games, my goal was to make it to the final. My aspiration was to win a medal.

ATF: In your blogs, you describe how you watched Internet videos of (’08 Olympic Gold medalist) Gerd Kanter while you were in China for motivation.

SBT: Yes, the one that I watched was from the 2007 World Championships in Osaka. He does specific things that I need to do better—specifically, in the rhythm of the throw. They were things that I wanted to emulate. I actually watched the tapes for about half of the season. It was a visualization technique.

ATF: Do you think your Olympic success will help improve the visibility and coverage of women’s discus throwing in the U.S.?

SBT: It will help visibility locally in California because there’s a local connection. On the national level, track and field has a long way to go in garnering attention. With the discus being on the low end of the totem pole in track and field, that’s a hard thing to predict. We have a group of the best U.S. throwers in history and they’ve had the best marks in the world at some points in their season. These throwers are capable of doing well at international meets. But there hasn’t been a confidence level in them. I hope that I can break the [perception] that U.S. discus throwers aren’t good at big, international meets. That’s now been blown out of the water. It gives our girls some confidence that they can repeat what I’ve done.

ATF: What’s ahead for you?

SBT: In 2009, I want to concentrate on being consistent at the 63m/206 and 64m/210 level, and possibly having wind-aided throws at the 68m/223 to 70m/229 level. While our [event] accommodates wind-aided marks, I believe I can throw far in non-windy conditions. Obviously, I showed that at the Olympics when I threw 212 feet without wind in damp, humid conditions. But it does take technical maturity. Usually, discus throwers hit their peak around 31 or 32. So, I’m still three or four years out. Also, I’d like to win a U.S. national championship. I’ve never done that. [Editor’s note: The U.S. women’s discus record is 67.67/222-0, set by Suzy Powell-Roos in 2007.]

ATF: Do you have any advice for young athletes who are just taking up track and field?

SBT: I’m mentoring several young throwers. The first thing I tell them is to start writing a journal. And writing down your goals is hugely important. A journal is a tool for stating your goals and tracking your progress towards them.

This is what Pete Corkery did with us at Cal Poly. Every year he had a goal-setting seminar and evaluation for all of his athletes. We reviewed our athletic and our general life goals.

Today, I have my own long- and short-term goals posted on my bulletin board. I wrote my long-term goals back in 2005—to buy land and build a home by 2010, and to break the American record in the discus. Now, they’re both very much within reach.

ATF: What about advice for athletes who are making the transition from high school to college and from college to open status?

SBT:Entering college there are so many distractions—so it’s very important to stick to your goals and not get dissuaded from them. There’s a big difference between reevaluating your goals, which is part of the periodic process, and being distracted from them. The new collegiate athlete must pick mentors carefully and listen to them. For example, there are a couple of collegiate kids who I mentor that are not happy with their distances or their training. But, they’re not really listening to their coaches. They’re second-guessing their coaches and they’re not really following the plan their coaches have for them. I tell these athletes that they need to implement their coach’s plan, and, then, if it’s not working out it’s time to reevaluate.

For athletes transitioning from college to open, I advise learning how to write grant applications. Practice writing essays in which you give a lot of thought to the exact reasons why you’re continuing in athletics. Be passionate about what you do. If you’re not passionate about it, then find your calling. It doesn’t have to be track and field. Don’t rely on external motivators. Find your internal motivation.

ATF: Finally, do you have any tips for coaches who are working with young female throwers?

SBT: In general, female throwers are an interesting breed of athlete. People who are good at throwing are basically head cases. I was a head case in high school and college. We’re difficult people to work with and we need a lot of patience. I believe women are driven more by self-esteem issues than by anything else. So, a coach should concentrate on making the female thrower feel like she’s worth something more than just an athlete—that she’s a well-rounded person. They should concentrate more on their athlete’s personal development. Then the athletic development will naturally evolve.

MARK WINITZ is a longtime contributor to American Track and Field. He is also a veteran member and secretary of USATF’s men’s long distance running executive committee. He admits that he is still learning about the field events.